By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
He was one of the original chefs at popular romantic Greenville Avenue night spot The Grape, and continued to gig at 8.0, Strictly Tabu, and 311 Lombardi's, from which he was canned to much critical hue and cry.
Although his illness took pounds off his frame and gave him a vaguely cadaverous cast in his last years, his character never evinced the slightest banking of his internal fires. Several years ago at a Sammons Jazz concert, he gave a performance that completely belied his fragile appearance, avoiding the usual dancing-skeleton xylophone cliches and instead serving up flurries of notes that seemed at one moment to follow a guitar's fretboard and a piano's keys the next. When I would call and talk to him, he had the cadences and slang of a character out of a Damon Runyon or Raymond Chandler novel. At one point I thanked him for his time and said I hoped that he'd make himself available should I have any other questions about the past of Dallas, jazz, or the intersection thereof.
"Sure, kid," he croaked, obviously not a well man. "But ya better hurry--I ain't gonna be around too much longer. They told me I was gonna be dead three years ago." No self-pity or quivering fear at the feet of the Next Gate--simply a statement issued with the matter-of-fact-ness that might accompany the announcement of a song's key and tempo, made by one of the few people I've ever encountered who could wear a beret on their head and make it look like it belonged there.
"He was a very happy man," Al Wesar said, summing up his friend and associate. "He was completely sure of who he was and what he was." With his
passing we may find it a bit harder to attain that state ourselves.
Man of constant sorrow
I first met Townes Van Zandt while working at a natural ice cream store in Austin, Texas. The store owner had good connections with the old-school (ca. 1980) Austin music industry; he was involved in managing acts which, in light of the First Punk Revolution, seemed increasingly moot. One of his acts was Jimmie Dale Gilmore and the other, Townes Van Zandt.
As a result, the owner's acts enjoyed eternal gratis ice cream privileges, just one of the incredible synergies that occurs in the rock 'n' roll world. Townes would come in sporadically. Although his personal eccentricities were well-documented even then, he was never anything but polite and lucid when he'd appear at the counter to order a shake or something in a downturned mumble that hinted that he was embarrassed even to be talking to you. Not taciturn, but no big deal.
Even then I knew who he was; punk notwithstanding, it was a time in the lives of myself and my friends when we were moving from only listening to stuff that we liked to actually trying to appreciate new things, and Van Zandt's Our Mother the Mountain was an archetypal roadmap as far as exploring the world of the singer-songwriter went.
He never let on that you might think of him as a genius. "Time flies when you're brain-dead," he once told me with a laugh, as if hearing that would explain everything. He was legendarily uneven, showing up plowed and collapsing on stage; at the time I lived with a guy who worked at a Lamar Street liquor store, and Townes was as often as not there sitting on the curb at half-past nine in the morning when my housemate came in to open up.
But face it: He was a guy who titled one of his albums The Late Great Townes Van Zandt and a song "Waiting Around to Die"; although one of his recent publicity shots shows him smiling, it wasn't his usual mode.
The truer pictures are the ones that show his homely, leathery face in melancholy contemplation, a series of shadows against skin. His music is like the prose of Cormac McCarthy, for the two share a view of the dire brutality of life--and of the power generated by fighting it, however inadvertently or even selfishly.
Subterranean fantasies of guilt and redemption--or at least escape--the bleakest hard-luck tale or the weirdest gambling analogies ever put to music were Van Zandt's stock in trade, but he could still write a song as heartbreakingly beautiful--and especially vulnerable--as If I Needed You, a bare declaration of intent whose clumsy gallop has seduced covers out of the likes of Emmylou Harris and Doc Watson.
The title of his 1994 album No Deeper Blue might be a lament but for "Katie Bell Blue," a song for his daughter; Nanci Griffith, the Cowboy Junkies, and Willie and Merle have all covered his songs. Still, the inevitable--presaged long ago when he was hospitalized for manic depression and suicidal tendencies- -was always close at hand; his friends all waited, and on New Year's Day the waiting stopped.
The cover of No Deeper Blue is a semi-abstract drawing: a vaguely Townes-like figure stands at a wall; behind him a flower and a female figure beckon, but his eyes are fixed on the pair of dice in front of him: snake eyes. A British writer relayed a story about seeing Van Zandt live during his UK tour with Peter Rowan and Guy Clark. An audience member yelled out that Townes should play "more blues." "They're all blues, man," the lanky singer-songwriter replied.